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A shrew renewed - 'Vinegar Girl'

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Anne Tyler novel reimagines 'The Taming of the Shrew'

Perhaps no author has ever been interpreted and reinterpreted as often as William Shakespeare. The universality of the tales told by the Bard open the door for a wide variety of different perspectives.

The latest to take literary liberties with Shakespeare's work are the folks at Hogarth, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group. As part of the ongoing Hogarth Shakespeare series, contemporary novelists are reimagining some of Shakespeare's most beloved works. The first two in the series were written by Jeanette Winterson and Howard Jacobson, who tackled 'The Winter's Tale' and 'The Merchant of Venice' respectively.

The third 'Vinegar Girl' (Hogarth, $25), inspired by 'The Taming of the Shrew' comes from the pen of award-winning author Anne Tyler.

Kate Battista isn't sure how her life arrived at this place. She's a college dropout, working as a teaching assistant at a preschool; her forthright speech and no-nonsense attitude make her popular with the students but decidedly less so with the well-aged teachers. She lives at home, keeping house for her family her eccentric, absent-minded scientist father and her bubbly, years-younger teenaged sister and generally wondering where it all went wrong.

It only gets worse when her father, whose distinct lack of social graces is ever apparent, asks her if she might be willing to marry his lab assistant.

Dr. Battista has spent years struggling with niche aspects of autoimmune research, but he's on the verge of a breakthrough. His assistant Pyotr is a Russian national whose visa is set to expire in a matter of weeks; the doctor believes that Pyotr's presence is vital to the successful continuation of the work.

Kate is understandably furious at her father - she has already given up so much to help him, after all. Yet the blend of weirdness, her father's graceless idiosyncrasies and Pyotr's foreign-born bluntness, slowly start to wear her down this despite the airheaded antics of sister Bunny, whose boy-craziness isn't so ingrained as to prevent her from seeing just how bizarre this whole situation is.

Through it all, an odd (and oddly sweet) courtship unfolds, with Kate refusing to change who she is and Pyotr embracing that reality with an easygoing understanding that might be part of his character or might just be a symptom of communicating in his second language.

Still, it's up to Kate to decide if she really wants to be a pawn in this game or if she wants something deeper or if the two notions are ultimately all that different.

Scholars have been arguing about the central relationship in 'Shrew' ever since Shakespeare became something that scholars argued about. The dynamic between Katherina and Petruchio or in this case, Kate and Pyotr is one that has been explored in a multitude of ways over the years.

The play has seen its share of modern updates, but what Anne Tyler has done is find a way to inject new life into the unwanted marriage proposal upon which the story revolves. Rather than some convoluted effort to marry off one daughter so that the other might also get married, 'Vinegar Girl' allows the Kate/Pyotr relationship to exist and evolve largely separately from Bianca/Bunny. In truth, Bunny is a minor player in this story and the story is so much the better for it while Battista's motivations come off as nobler (though no less selfish) than in the original.

Regardless, it's Kate and Pyotr that matter here, though the lion's share of the attention is paid to Kate. Tyler offers up a clear sense of Kate's intent, of why she chooses to follow through with the development of the relationship. And much like Battista, Pyotr's motivations to continue working with a scientist that he greatly admires are still selfish, yet far less off-putting than the simple gold-digging fortune-hunting of the play.

At 240 pages, it's a lightning-fast read, the sort of book that one can burn through in an afternoon. Tyler's prose is engaging and readable and she breathes a freshness into the narrative that would allow even the odd reader unfamiliar with the play or with the connection to it to be borne aloft by the book's buoyant narrative.

'Vinegar Girl' is a delightful addition to Hogarth's Shakespeare series; it will certainly prove a pleasant diversion for anyone who loves the Bard, but in truth, anyone who enjoys a fun, frothy love story will be well-served by turning these pages.

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:44


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